Technology based informal learning – more substance than style

Tonight was the Oxford e-learning debate, held in the Oxford Union and chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones or @ruskin147 as he is better known to his Twitter followers. The motion being debated was that “This house believes that technology-based informal learning is more style than substance”.

Three speakers presented their arguments for each side, supplemented by audience contributions. The argument for the motion seemed to focus largely on the unstructured nature of informal learning as almost being a risk to the world as we know it. Whilst they acknowledged that informal learning has its place, they sought to devalue its contribution citing the lack of standards, the lack of assessment and the lack of an ‘informal learning’ profession as primary reasons for it lacking substance. They also suggested that it failed to contribute to the bottom line of an organisation.

The emphasis was that expertise is achieved through guided, structured learning with deliberate and repeated practice. Informal learning (and the technology was largely irrelevant to their argument) was not something that you would want to trust for critical work. The final speaker for the motion, Mark Doughty, cited the Apollo 13 mission as an example where informal learning would not work. Gene Krantz’s mantra in Mission Control was that ‘failure was not an option’ – in such circumstances Doughty argued you have to rely on the tried and tested.

I felt there were several flaws in their case. Whilst it is true that I would not want to be flown by a pilot who had no formal evidence of competence, informal learning has a role to play in formal education and again in the workplace. As one of the audience noted, it is only possible to give new entrants to a company the basic information they need to do their job – thereafter the bulk of their learning is through discovery whether through the internet, internal resources or casual conversations by the water cooler. So in that respect, informal learning does contribute to the bottom line. The argument that in crisis you don’t want any informal learning was also flawed, even I felt in the case of Apollo 13. There were no manuals for dealing with the crippled craft. The controllers had learnt as the missions had progressed – not controlled learning but learning on the job, from their experiences and their mistakes. Apollo 13 was no different – the problem was solved by people getting together, pooling their expertise and deciding on a course of action – group work and informal learning. Would it be different today? It would. Those handling the problem could (and would) call in expertise from other parts of the world to solve it, making use of the pool of resources available to them. And that is what school children do, what undergraduates do and what working people do. They make use of the resources available to them. What is different is that the pool of resources is so much bigger and is growing minute by minute and is readily accessible.

The motion was heavily defeated. The internet is now viewed as a trusted source of information, much more than the traditional press and the mass of content online is a contributor to the way people learn and ultimately to the bottom line. The challenge is more perhaps to traditional learning and to business and industry to learn how to harness it effectively.


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